Sandra Bland is the one you knew about. In the year after her well-publicized death, 815 people died in jail awaiting trial. A third of them died within the first three days of incarceration. Most were in jail for one reason only: They were too poor to pay bail. This reality is what terrified Tai Sherman’s mother, Tracey, and the reason she spent every dime she had—and a lot she didn’t—to get her daughter out.
Tai’s story is featured in this short film series, The Bail Trap, by Brave New Films, which was produced as part of a major, statewide campaign to end the unjust and ineffective system of money bail in California. Sign up to host a house party or screening to show the short films and get involved in the campaign. Tai’s is a classic case in point of what is wrong with money bail. Tai had no criminal record. She was arrested for driving away while a police officer was trying to arrest an acquaintance of hers for shoplifting $38 worth of stuff—dish soap and the like. For this, Tai was slapped with $100,000 bail.
Money bail is what most of us think of—thanks to TV cop shows—as bail. The reality is, however, that bail is simply the temporary release of a person while they are awaiting trial. The money part is a modern invention—no doubt a way to make someone rich by taking advantage of someone else. Bail is a $14 billion-a-year business with its own trade association—the American Bail Coalition or ABC—made up of national bail-insurance companies who underwrite the bonds and take a cut. This group lobbies hard for the policies that make it money and it shows. Before ABC began lobbying, in 1990, commercial, for-profit bail accounted for just 23 percent of pretrial releases, while release on recognizance accounted for 40 percent. Today, only 23 percent of those let go before trial are released on recognizance, while 49 percent must purchase commercial bail.
Money bail doesn’t work—at least it doesn’t work any better than a phone call reminding a person to show up for court, the same way a hairdresser or doctor’s office calls to remind you about an appointment. That has been proven.
What money bail is good for is promoting a stratified race-and-class system. The system allows millionaires to go free without actually losing a dime, while low-income people like Tai’s family have to fork over 10 percent of their bail—$10,000 in Tai’s case—to a bail-bonds company. It’s money that they will never get back. So, as we show in the film, Lindsey Lohan commits an offense, pays the full bail amount to the court, then repockets it after sentencing (plus whatever she makes from telling her story to a magazine) and walks out of jail unharmed.
Tai, by contrast, pleaded to a misdemeanor. Nonetheless, she is working full-time instead of going to college because she and her mother are struggling to pay the bail bondsman and still keep the lights on at home.
The good news is that money-bail reform has a lot of momentum in California and has a good chance of happening this year, even in the age of Trump.